They were the biggest names in spiritualism and they were also…frauds. We share the sad history of The Fox Sisters on this episode of Unpleasant Dreams.
Cassandra Harold is your host.
EM Hilker is our principal writer and researcher with additional writing by Cassandra Harold. Jim Harold is our Executive Producer.
Unpleasant Dreams is a production of Jim Harold Media.
Sources & Further Reading:
Abbot, Karen. “The Fox Sisters and the Rap on Spiritualism.” Smithsonianmag.com. https://www.smithsonianmag.com/history/the-fox-sisters-and-the-rap-on-spiritualism-99663697/
Retrieved 14 November 2020.
Buzzfeed Unsolved. “The Spiritual World of the Fox Sisters.” Youtube. 2 October 2020. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kPPgwh4yk2Q
Lyttelton, George. Dialogues of the Dead. https://www.gutenberg.org/files/17667/17667-h/17667-h.htm Retrieved 14 November 2020.
Nickell, Joe. “A Skeleton’s Tale” Skeptical Inquirer vol 32, no 4. https://skepticalinquirer.org/2008/07/a-skeletons-tale-the-origins-of-modern-spiritualism/ Retrieved 15 November 2020.
O’Connell, Rebecca. “The Rise and Fall of Five Claimed Mediums.” MentalFloss. https://www.mentalfloss.com/article/69973/rise-and-fall-5-claimed-mediums Retrieved 14 November 2020.
Stuart, Nancy Rubin. “The Fox Sisters: Spiritualism’s Unlikely Founders.” Historynet. https://www.historynet.com/the-fox-sisters-spiritualisms-unlikely-founders.htm Retrieved 14 November 2020.
Wehrstein, KM and McLuhan, R. “Fox Sisters.” Psi Encyclopedia. https://psi-encyclopedia.spr.ac.uk/articles/fox-sisters
Retrieved 14 November 2020.
You can find EM Hilker’s full article that this podcast was based upon HERE and a transcript of the podcast version below:
The Fox Sisters
The spiritualism movement of the early-to-mid 1800s captured the hearts and minds of a great many people. Spiritualism was the belief that the spirits of the dead are not only able to communicate with us, but are eager to share their wisdom with the living world. Spiritualism flourished at a time when Mesmerism was a growing interest on the heels of The Second Great Awakening. This was a fifty year period of religious revivalism, and a curious populace were seeking answers amid the confusion of the day.
The Spiritualism movement has given us modern-style seances and stage mediumship; it’s what popularized commercial fortune telling. The term “seance” itself (introduced into the language sometime between 1795 and 1805) merely means a “sitting”, though the spiritual concept is older. George, First Baron Lyttleton, famously featured discussion with the deceased in his 1760’s work of fiction, Dialogues of the Dead. Seances have been divided into four categories: religious, stage mediumship, leader-assisted, and informal social seances. Although, all of the proceedings are considered a part of the spiritualism movement.
The Fox sisters are credited with launching the movement, but its origins stretch back further than that. Emmanuel Swedenborg, who lived more than a century earlier, experienced a divine revelation in which he learned that communication with the spirit world and with God is possible through a certain mental state. He felt that the body was simply a vessel for the soul, and that Hell and Heaven will attempt to influence mortals to do good or evil, though the mortal in question is free to choose their path as they wish. According to Swedenborg’s beliefs, the path to Heaven or Hell is forged by your actions in life. These ideas would eventually lead to the formation of the New Church and the Swedenborgian Church in North America.
The other oft-credited influence on the spiritualism movement is Franz Mesmer, the founder of “animal magnetism” or mesmerism (more commonly known as hypnotism in the modern day). The original concept went far beyond simply putting someone into a trance –Mesmer believed animal magnetism could hold the cure for powerful healing; the trancework was only a small part of his theories. The concept of going into a trance, however, would be a tremendous influence in coming years for the spiritualism movement.
The women known as “the Fox Sisters” are three of the seven Fox children: the youngest two were the core of the Fox Sisters: youngest daughter Catherine “Kate” Fox and her slightly older sister Margaretta (“Maggie”). When everything began, Kate and Maggie were in their early teens and their eldest sister, Leah, was an adult in her own home. Leah would eventually ‘manage’ the girls, though not tour with them, and was really only a part of the action for a handful of years.
The girls would later say that they began this whole thing as a prank played on their credulous mother. That is certainly consistent with the evidence we have of the early days of mysterious rappings and knockings. In early 1848, the Fox family began to hear mysterious sounds in their house in Hydesville, New York. The noises seemed to resemble footsteps or someone knocking. On March 31, 1848, Kate decided to try to “communicate” with it. They called the entity “Mr. Splitfoot,” and it frightened their mother terribly. Maggie took pity on her mother and tried to explain that it was meant as an April Fool’s joke, but her mother would not believe it. The girls continued the “communication” in the home over weeks and months.
Eventually, the family told their neighbours of these mysterious happenings, who told other people in turn, as neighbours do. It didn’t take long before there was a hubbub surrounding the Fox household. In the following year, 1849, the girls were sent to Rochester, New York, to live with their siblings, to try to escape both the haunting and the attention of the curious. Despite this, the phenomenon followed them to their new homes. Leah supported their reputation as mediums, and introduced them to her friends, the Posts.
Amy and Isaac Post were luminaries in the local mesmerism movement. They wanted to explore the girls’ abilities and invited the Fox sisters to a small party in their home. The Posts planned to conduct a seance with the girls as part of the evening. The party and seance were successful, and it was here that the spirits conveniently mentioned that Leah also possessed the gift. The party was in fact such a success that the Posts rented a large room in Corinthian Hall and the Fox sisters showcased their abilities there.
The girls began holding regular seances for pay in New York, which were incredibly popular. Among the people attracted by these seances: were journalist and newspaper editor William Cullen Bryant and abolitionist and women’s rights activist Sojourner Truth. Andrew Jackson Davis, known as the “Poughkeepsie Seer”, was impressed by the girls’ abilities and lent them his support, and therefore credibility, as they became more and more well-known. With this traction, Maggie and Kate embarked on a tour of these shows in the area, while Leah stayed behind and worked as a medium in her own right.
In 1851, Fox family member Mrs. Norman Culver confessed to being aware of the fraud, which was disclosed to her by Kate. This impacted their popularity very little, though critics began to guess at various ways that these girls could be perpetrating a hoax. Mrs. Culver alleged, and several critics correctly guessed, that the raps were produced by the girls “cracking” joints in their feet and knees. The spiritualism movement was entirely unaffected by the criticism of the Fox sisters, and both they and spiritualism continued to become more and more popular.
The following year after Ms. Culver’s confession, 17 year old Maggie met skeptic and Arctic explorer Elisha Kane (a-lai-sha). Kane fell deeply in love with Maggie despite his beliefs that she was a fraud. Under his influence, she began to drift away from the spiritualist movement. Tragically Kane died in 1857, just shortly after a small informal wedding ceremony. Though the two considered themselves married, they allegedly lacked an actual marriage certificate. The actual legal status of Elisha and Maggie’s marriage was unclear, the confusion around which resulted in Maggie being ousted from the will by Kane’s family members. Perhaps related to Maggie’s exclusion from the will, later that same year, the youngest two Fox sisters made an attempt at a prize offered by the Boston Courier to anyone who could prove the legitimacy of mediumship. The reward equaled $500 (roughly $14,150 in modern day American currency). On the whole, aside from this attempt, Maggie continued to reject spiritualism as she fell further and further into poverty.
Kate continued on alone with her mediumship during this period, and in 1871 moved to England to pursue spiritualist opportunities there. The following year, she married fellow spiritualist HD Jencken. They had two sons, and a seemingly happy life until Jencken died in 1881.
Each grieving deeply, both Maggie and Kate had begun to self-medicate with alcohol. By 1888, both women had become alcoholics. Leah, continuing to operate as a medium herself, grew concerned with Kate’s alcoholism and her ability to care for her two sons. Word of this spread, and Kate’s two sons were briefly taken from her, though restored to her care after intercession by Maggie.
Maggie was already out of the spiritualism movement and had been for some time, and Kate was livid that her abilities as a mother had been questioned. Thus, on the 21st of October in 1888, perhaps partially in revenge against Leah, perhaps partially out of financial desperation, Kate and Maggie came forward. The two were paid $1500 (roughly 41,000 USD today) by a reporter to confess their crime at the New York Academy of Music in front of 2,000 people. They also made a number of anti-spiritualist statements during this period, with Kate calling it “one of the greatest curses that the world has ever known.”
In November of the following year, Maggie recanted her confession. This was due to her own financial needs as a result of having drunk away her confession fee, and growing pressure from other spiritualists. Maggie attempted to practice spiritualism once again for whatever meagre work she could get, but her reputation both as a spiritualist and as a skeptic was ruined in one fell swoop. She would spend her few remaining years in poverty, as would Kate.
Leah predeceased Maggie and Kate, having died in 1890, not on speaking terms with either sister. The youngest two Fox sisters died within a year of one another in Brooklyn, New York (Maggie on the 8th of March in 1893 and Kate on the 3rd of July in 1892).
The Fox Sisters left us very little writing. Maggie did not publish her own work, but she did publish the love letters written to her by her husband, entitled The Love Life of Dr. Kane, giving us a small window into their lives. Leah published a book called The Missing Link in Modern Spiritualism, in which she outlined her career as a medium.
Spiritualism continued on after the passing of the Fox sisters, and continues to this day. People still hold seances very similar to the Fox sisters’, and people continue to occasionally hear rappings they attribute to the spirit world (correctly or otherwise). One only needs to look at virtually any television listing to find an assortment of ghost-hunting shows; and one can find a psychic willing to give you a reading in virtually any modern-day town. Bookshelves in your local bookstore are filled with books on finding your own psychic gifts, and many famous names have been associated with spiritualism: Arthur Conan Doyle, The Bangs sisters, Mina Crandon, Leonora Piper, and Harry Houdini (the latter admittedly as an enemy of spiritualism).
As an odd sort of afternote, to the excitement of those who still believed in the legitimacy of the sisters, in 1904 it was said that a “body” had been discovered in the house that the girls had lived in, where they had claimed to be in contact with the spirit of a murdered peddler. No record has ever been found of the peddler they’d described, and the bones, of which there were only a few, turned out upon examination to be animal bones.